Monday, August 1, 2011

How Prevalent is the "Teen Show Barbie Body"?

The girls of 90210. Photo courtesy of

A friend recently recommended that I check out a piece by Anne Helen Petersen about the way in which teen shows promote a very specific body image, which Petersen calls the "Teen Show Barbie Body." This particular physical appearance - exemplified in the shot above of the girls of the CW's 90210 - is described as "tall, relatively small breasts, pilates-toned ... and long, slightly wavy hair, parted slightly to the side, with no bangs ... their facial features are all remarkably similar, which is to say, Anglicized." The shows that Petersen specifically calls out are 90210, Gossip Girl, Pretty Little Liars and my beloved The Vampire Diaries.

While I certainly agree that TV shows in general, and teen dramas in particular, present a problematic body image that millions of teenage girls are exposed to when they sit down to enjoy the twists and turns of their favorite shows. However, that doesn't mean I completely agree with Petersen; I have a number of problems with her argument, not the least of which is her excessive use of commas. I won't harp on that particular problem (it's just my inner grammarian making an appearance), but I do take issue with three of her points; one, that she leaves Glee out of the equation; two, that none of these shows' stars will never move on to "true stardom" because their appearance is not "marked by some distinct feature"; and three, that none of these actresses resemble "normal" teenagers, and that their lack of normality creates a problem.

Part of the reason that I'm so bothered by Petersen's analysis is her use of The Vampire Diaries, one of my favorite shows, as an example. Loyal readers of Pencils Down, Pass the Remote know how much I love TVD, and they also know that my love for the phenomenal Nina Dobrev knows no bounds. To hear Dobrev - who plays two completely different characters so brilliantly that I often forget they're portrayed by the same actress - lumped in with the interchangeable sticks of 90210 as a "decent" actress with no potential for movie stardom makes my blood boil.

I also happen to think that Petersen largely leaves out the most egregious offender, barely mentioning Fox's Glee, a television phenomenon whose audience is probably greater than that of the previous four shows combined. The major problem I have with Glee - well, one of many, many problems - is the way the show constantly preaches that being "unique" and "different" is okay, while showing through the writing that, while being unique is all well and good, a girl can only land a boyfriend if she's stick thin with good hair (or if she's Lauren Zizes, and her entire purpose is to redeem Puck as a character). Petersen does point out that the majority of the women on Glee would fit in perfectly well with the cast of 90210, but she fails to bring up the offensive lack of storylines - romantic or otherwise - for the members of the cast who actually look different. Exhibit A: Mercedes. Exhibit B: Coach Beiste. Exhibits C-Z: Also Mercedes. Plus, she leaves out the fact that Lea Michele started out the series looking like this:

Photo courtesy of
but by the start of season two had dropped a considerable amount of weight and now looked like this:
Photo courtesy of
The point being that, while there was an entire episode dedicated to Michele's Rachel keeping her stereotypically Jewish nose, there has never once been a mention of the fact that she dropped two dress sizes from her already small frame before the premiere of season 2.

Petersen also claims that none of these "teen barbie" actresses will ever go on to "true stardom" - by which she means film stardom, the ranking of which so far above TV stardom is material for an entirely different piece - arguing that these girls are not distinctive enough to see true success as a film star. Petersen provides a list of actors who are distinguished by being "beautiful, inexactly," ranging from Greta Garbo to Angelina Jolie to George Clooney. Now, I would certainly take issue with the idea that Clooney is not conventionally attractive, but instead I want to point out some of the stars she conveniently leaves off the list. One of the most notable is sex symbol and movie star Rita Hayworth, an undeniable screen siren who only became famous after undergoing an extensive makeover to make her appear more Caucasian and strip away the Spanish physicality of Margarita Carmen Cansino (Hayworth's birth name).

For a contemporary example, look no further than Brad Pitt, conventionally attractive partner of the "inexactly beautiful" Jolie. I would argue that, in recent years, Pitt has become a much bigger film star than Jolie, who at this point is known largely because of her tabloid exploits while Pitt has managed to separate his reputation as an actor from the constant paparazzi coverage. Pitt has succeeded as a film star in spite of his conventional good looks, and I happen to think that Dobrev, with her classic beauty and her formidable talent, could probably do the same.

I also take issue with Petersen's argument that shows like Freaks and Geeks and Veronica Mars are inherently better than the teen dramas she singles out because they present more "realistic" high school students. I love Freaks and Geeks just as much as the next critic, but that's not the kind of show that The Vampire Diaries is. It's a show about freaking vampires! It doesn't have to be realistic. And while most high school students don't look like Nina Dobrev, there are very few television actors that resemble high school students. Veronica Mars' Kristen Bell is considerably better looking than most of the people I went to high school with, as is Freaks and Geeks' James Franco. Petersen doesn't seem to understand that television actors, at least in the US, are all better looking than the vast majority of the populace. That's why they become actors.I'm not arguing that this isn't a problem, but it's not a problem with these particular shows; it's a proble, with TV and movies in general, and the culture of beauty and sameness that they promote.

However, I don't think that the teens on The Vampire Diaries are as unrealistic-looking as Petersen seems to think. Of course, when you post promotional photos like this:

Photo courtesy of
 the actress is going to look unrealistic. It's a photo meant to promote the show in which Dobrev is wearing designer clothes, has had her hair and makeup done for a photo shoot, and has probably been airbrushed within an inch of her life. Meanwhile, when Dobrev appears as Elena she looks like this:

Photo courtesy of
She's still thin and beautiful (Nina Dobrev would look good in a paper bag), but she's dressed like a normal high school student in jeans, sneakers and a jacket. Her hair is styled, but it isn't "the type of hair that is impossible or requires a tremendous amount of labor" as Petersen claims. Maybe it's just because of the environment in which I grew up, but many of the girls I went to school with showed up every morning at eight a.m. with shiny, flatironed, salon-perfect hair. I certainly wasn't one of those girls - I have curly hair that is extremely difficult to tame and I happen to value my sleep - but to me, Elena's hair doesn't look out of the ordinary, and neither do her clothes.
I certainly don't think that television, movies and media promote a healthy body image for women, and I also have my own set of body-image issues that are, in all likelihood, the result of the constant media barrage of impossibly thin, flawless women that grace TV shows, films and magazines. I just don't think it's fair for Petersen to pick on talented young actresses like Nina Dobrev or her costars Candica Accola and Katerina Graham. These girls may be thin and pretty, but none of them are as terrifyingly skinny as the girls of 90210, and they're also more talented (and on a better show). It's certainly not fair of her to argue that none of these girls will ever become film stars because of her inaccurate idea that great film stars are only famous because of their distinctive features, rather than their talent and charisma. Let's stop picking on the casts of teen soap operas, and instead focus on the real problem: magazine editors, casting directors and studio executives who have created a pop-culture world in which the only acceptable body type is one that very few women can ever hope to attain.